Can Green Visionaries and Eco Realists Coexist?

the visionary photo

Image credit: H. Koppdelaney, used under Creative Commons license.

When I wrote about the UK government's apparent redefinition of 'zero carbon homes', an anonymous commenter noted how amusing it is "when governments figure out that it's much harder to actually do something, than to say you're going to do it." And that got me thinking—given the urgency of climate change, peak oil and resource depletion, we need radical visions and bold plans to create a better world. But then we also need people who can actually help get us there. Unfortunately, being visionary and being realistic are often seen as mutually exclusive.From Bill McDonough's planned Chinese ecocities that have so far failed to materialize, to preposterously extravagant vertical farms that will most likely never see the light of day—the green movement certainly has had, and will continue to have, its fair share of outlandish, ambitious, and sometimes downright ludicrous concepts.

Then again, from the transformation of Curitiba to a world-class livable city, through New York's renaissance as a bike, walk and bus friendly place to be, to a dramatic reversal of Amazon deforestation, there are plenty of success stories—many of which would never have seen the light of day if it hadn't been for visionaries and dreamers.

But how do we walk that thin line between dreaming big enough to meet the tremendous challenges our world faces, and still remaining grounded enough to recognize what is, and what is not, feasible? I've already written how techniques like backcasting can help connect vision with reality, and I think they have a wider lesson to teach—namely that bold, courageous plans are needed for the medium- to long-term, but equally those visions will not be achieved overnight.

That's why we also need to identify ambitious, but achievable, short-term goals that help get us to where we need to be one step at a time. I'm not talking about resorting to modest incrementalism here. As shown by the 10:10 Campaigns efforts to cut carbon emissions 10% in one year—short-term goals can, and should, be as far reaching as possible. But they must be possible.

So by all means, we need folks urging that zero carbon economies are possible in 20 years. But then we need practical, hard headed thinking on how that can be achieved.

Ultimately it's not really a question of choosing visionaries over realists (or vice versa), but of finding both the inner visionary and realist in each of us. It is also a question of not ever letting cynicism or laziness masquerade as realism. Nor allowing naivety and wishful thinking pass itself off as vision.

More on Green Thinking and Strategy
How Backcasting Can Help Us See the Pathway to a Sustainable Future
Individual Virtue Vs. Collective Success: Why Environmentalists Must Take Political Action
To Win, the Green Movement Needs to Understand Leverage, Not Just Footprints
Environmentalists Need Strategy. Saul Alinsky and the Green Movement.

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